The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 25.0°F | Mostly Cloudy


It Came from Outer Space!

Kris Schnee

UFOs are real. That is, people sometimes see Unidentified Flying Objects, anything in the sky that isn’t readily explained. People have a tendency, though, to assume that UFOs are something other than mental glitches or falling space debris.

For over half a century, tales of “flying saucers” (based on a misquote of one of the first UFO reports) and similar phenomena have been a part of American culture; like old sci-fi shows in which the “aliens” were just Russians or hostile Indians with new costumes, extraterrestrial beings have replaced demons, witches, devils, and faeries as the scapegoat for every case of unexplained weirdness. There are entire magazines devoted to the study of UFOs (UFOology?), and scientists who make their living studying abduction accounts (like Dr. John Mack of Harvard Medical School).

Our culture’s fascination with extraterrestrial life comes at a time when our space program is languishing. There is little enough public support for real space science now that NASA has lately been limited to a mission plan of “Faster, Cheaper, Vanishing Without a Trace.”

A quick search on found 577 books with titles including “UFO,” but only a hundred for “Space telescope(s).” The cold-fusion journal Infinite Energy has been expanding into some other, ah, interesting areas of research, reporting that the French government conducted a study of the UFO phenomenon and concluded that the existence of alien spacecraft in Earth’s skies is “quasi-certain.” The report recommends that preparations be made for the possible discovery of alien bases on European soil, a scenario straight out of the old computer game X-Com: UFO Defense.

With all the interest people show towards the alien encounter fad, why can’t we put more energy into looking for real aliens instead?

Here are some identified flying objects: we have discovered dozens of planets outside our solar system to date, 29 of them as of March. Some are ultra-hot worlds orbiting closer to their parent stars than Mercury orbits our sun; others have more reasonable orbits. A few orbit deadly neutron stars which regularly blast them with radiation. All are gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, but some are within their stars’ habitable zone and could have moons with liquid water -- and life.

NASA has for years been planning a series of successors to the Hubble Space Telescope, set to be launched in the next decade. The upcoming Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) will have the ability to see stars that even Hubble could not, and the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) will do something much more exciting. The reason why only gas giants have been found by astronomers so far is that they are the only planets we can currently detect.

Extrasolar planets are found by measuring minute wobbles of distant stars caused by the mass of nearby planets. Our crude equipment can “only” see Jupiter-sized planets this way. (The current method is not like recording every passing weather balloon as an alien spacecraft, either: last November, a star in the Pegasus constellation was found to dim noticeably at regular intervals as something with two hundred times Earth’s mass passed by.) The Space Interferometry Mission will detect the star-wobbles caused by extrasolar planets only slightly larger than Earth -- if there are any. Given the early success of the search for gas giants, SIM is likely to strike gold too.

We already have the ability to peer deeply into space, to the extent that we are willing to pay for it. But future NASA missions will go much further, and show the world the real answer to the question of whether there is other life in the universe. The Space Interferometry Mission is only a precursor to even better things. On the drawing boards is the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST), an extremely ambitious project with a huge mirror and a price tag of $500 million, one quarter of Hubble’s cost. And the ultimate project currently planned (never say “ultimate” to an engineer!), the Terrestrial Planet Finder, will have the power to silence every alien enthusiast in the world, temporarily. TPF will scan hundreds of nearby stars and reveal whether they have Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone -- and also analyze planets’ atmospheres by spectrometry for chemicals like water vapor and ozone.

This is the way to search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. UFOologists have crop circles and testimonials which sound like rejected X-Files plots; NASA plans a mirror-studded bar the length of a football field, capable of seeing planets light-years away. Real science makes the entire UFO fad seem banal and ridiculous by contrast. Let’s build the next generation of telescopes with all possible speed, and only then speculate about extraterrestrial encounters.